To understand the path to the postseason for the Patriots this season, we need to revisit their long and winding road since defeating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
It wouldn't really be accurate to call Thursday night’s contest against the Rams a rematch of that game in Atlanta in February 2019. New England’s skill position players from that night are unrecognizable, beginning at quarterback.
Tom Brady is gone, as are Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson, all of whom caught passes in the game. Two more targets, Rex Burkhead and Julian Edelman -- the MVP of Super Bowl LIII -- are on injured reserve, while Sony Michel has been reduced to a bit role.
James White is the only player touched the ball on offense for New England who’ll suit up at SoFi Stadium Thursday. He had just nine all-purpose yards last time out against LA.
The carnage on the defensive side of the ball may not be quite as drastic, but Dont’a Hightower -- who sacked Rams quarterback Jared Goff twice in the game -- opted out of the 2020 season, as did Patrick Chung; he suffered a broken arm in Super Bowl LIII. Also missing are former Patriots Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy, who was just named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the Dolphins.
“I think there’s not many parallels that you can draw from that game and this game, the teams are so different,” Goff noted earlier this week.
The Rams have gone through many changes themselves, falling from a 13-3 mark in the season leading to Super Bowl LIII to 9-7 and out of the postseason last year. Now they’re back to 8-4 and lead the NFC West, though with some hideous new uniforms that make the Patriots’ aesthetic changes look good.
“There’s a lot of football that’s been played since then,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “I think the more recent games have more relevance, certainly the players do. There’s a lot of players that played in that game that aren't going to play in this one.”
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The view from 10,000 feet of the two most recent games the Patriots have played -- and won -- couldn’t be more different: one was decided by a walk-off field goal, the other was the second-largest shutout win in team history. Still, it doesn’t require deep digging to see the obvious parallels, not just between the wins over the Cardinals and Chargers but also the win over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
New England outlasted Arizona despite its quarterback play, when Cam Newton threw for just 84 yards and two interceptions. The Patriots blew out the Chargers with Newton more or less a side car, committing no turnovers and providing his usual excellent rushing prowess but throwing for only 69 yards.
“It’s not the sexiest thing to see a quarterback throw for 69 yards,” Newton said on "The Greg Hill Show" earlier this week.
Make no mistake, Brady was better than that in the Super Bowl against the Rams, but there’s a reason Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) was the MVP. Brady completed 21 of 35 passes for 262 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in the game, pedestrian totals that Newton matched easily in several games this season.
There’s more than one way to win in the NFL, a theory New England has proven during its
hot lukewarm streak to get back to .500 after a 2-5 start to the season.
Belichick’s longstanding emphasis on special teams paid dividends over the last two weeks, culminating in Gunner Olszewski’s AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after returning a punt for a touchdown against the Chargers. Jake Bailey is punting at a Pro Bowl level (second in league in net average), the team’s coverage units have been outstanding, Nick Folk has you wondering why the Patriots wasted a fifth-round draft pick on Justin Rohrwasser and Donte Moncrief has given the team a jolt in the kick return game.
Special teams won’t necessarily win championships, but they can surely be a reason you’ll lose them.
With those units clicking at a championship level and the offense ... let's call it "adapting" post-Brady, the Patriots have ensured themselves of meaningful football games in the month of December for the 20th season in a row. Whether or not they’re playing for keeps in January for a 12th straight season could hinge on continued improvements from the defense, which all of a sudden looks like it has some building blocks to work with.
The team’s top three draft picks last April, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, have been showing tangible improvement each and every week for the Patriots. Dugger, who led the team in tackles against the Ravens last month, has played more than 75% of New England’s defensive snaps over the last month. Uche, who played a season-high 36 snaps against the Chargers, rewarded the Patriots with three QB hits.
“I thought he provides situationally an element of pass rush and some passing game value for us,” Belichick said of Uche. “So, we’ll continue to build on that, but he’s improved and he’s worked hard to understand what we’re doing and also how that changes from game to game. He’s taken some communication roles over defensively and that’s been good.”
Jennings earned his first start since Week 7 on Sunday, playing 44 snaps on defense -- in addition to nine on special teams. Chase Winovich, the team’s third-round draft choice from 2019, continues to do a little bit of everything for the Patriots defensively as well. He recorded the first interception of his career on Sunday, joking afterwards his teammates call him “Ballhawk.”
“Chase is a pretty instinctive player,” Belichick said. “He has a pretty good sense of where to go and what to do.”
Playoff push or not, December is a critical month of development for the Patriots. If they can get to 9-7 or even 10-6 after the start they had, there’ll be legitimate momentum for 2021.
The biggest piece of the puzzle will be how New England treats the quarterback position in the off-season. Without the rest of the team rounding into form, however, it hardly matters who’s under center.
Quarterback purgatory is a terrible place to be, but the rest of the roster, aside from wide receiver and tight end, just might be closer to contention than previously thought.